The Rollercoaster of Transcendence
An Interview with Terence McKenna
The fact that conducting this interview afforded me a great opportunity to blag a press pass to "The Event" at which McKenna was appearing (11 October 1996) was just a bonus. I was chuffed as hell to finally meet this guy whose ideas had unfolded many of my own, and give him a good grilling. I roped co-zinester John Eden into coming down at the last minute, and we piled into the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London to see what he had to say for himself. Given that he had described himself on DMT as an "orgasmic goblin", I wasn’t quite prepared for how tall he was. Nor was I prepared for how deftly he managed to shed any of my traces of hero-worship with self-deprecating humour and casual, endearing wisdom.
Gyrus: Firstly, have you seen Independence Day, and what did you make of it?
Terence: I didn’t see it, because I saw enough of it in shorts to realize it’s The Day The Earth Stood Still with worse actors and more money.
Gyrus: Fair enough. Now, do you see a contradiction in the desire to leave the planet and the desire to save it? Is it merely a case of delaying global catastrophe so that we’re here long enough to leave?
Terence: I don’t really see a contradiction. We probably saved the Earth the first time in 6000 BC, when we decided to move into cities. That gave the Earth enormous breathing room—up until the present moment, in fact. At what cost to ourselves is hard to assess. Certainly, we’ve become different creatures than we would have been otherwise. Probably the Earth and the human segment of the biosphere must be parted, not only to save the Earth, but in a sense to save ourselves. Our thing is to unfold the imagination, and that’s all very well when the best trick you can do is a Gothic cathedral. But we’re capable of things far, far beyond that, and if we were to try to unfold these dreams on the surface of the planet, we would probably wreck it and toxify ourselves. On the other hand, outer space is almost like mental space. Where we’re headed, whether we leave the planet behind or not, is into the imagination. And either it will be a three-dimensional space colonizing, a kind of Buck Rogers deal; or the more contempo-vision I think is of a nanotech immigration into some kind of virtual or cybernetically maintained space.
The whole question revolves around the body. What is it? Where are you going to put it? What role should it have? Is the body the defining quintessence of humanness, or is it the ball and chain that holds us from forever realizing what humanness is? That’s an ideological cat-fight that I’d like to sit in the front row and watch, but I don’t think I want to get down on the mat. It’ll sort itself out.
Gyrus: I was interested in this because the in plot of Independence Day, the aliens were basically seen as going from planet to planet, using all the resources, going to another planet, and so on… This seemed to be some sort of projection of ourselves—if we leave the planet, still with this potential for destroying resources, that’s what we would be.
Terence: All projections of aliens are statements about the human condition. And I think you’re quite right. I mean, this horrific vision of alien triage and waste-making is precisely how we would conduct ourselves if we were to ever make it out there. The point being that it may be possible that you can’t organize a global society for starflight without stripping out some of its more savage and brutal tendencies. For example, how long has it been? Thirty years since the landing on the moon? And our humanness has made it impossible to go beyond that. It was essentially a stunt, staged for political and ideological purposes. It wasn’t an evolutionary thrust, unstoppable and leading to starflight. It was a political stunt. Now, there may come a time when we can pull ourselves up by our bootstraps and spread out into the galaxy, but I think we have to do a lot of dirty laundry here before that’s possible to contemplate.
A friend of mine, somebody worth quoting—Howard Rheingold, who’s a hot VR guy… I was with him once on a psychedelic trip, and in the middle of it, he stood up and said, "My God! I’ve understood what virtual reality is for!" (laughter) And I said, "What is it for, Howard? You invented the term ‘teledildonics’, I thought you’d already figured out what it was for." He said, "No, no, virtual reality will keep us from ever leaving the planet." So he saw it as a cheap shot, a second prize. No, you can’t conquer the galaxy, but here’s a simulacrum of Madonna that you can screw forever. Real colonization of the galaxy is quite a technological leap from anything that we’re capable of now. Clearly, virtual reality, indistinguishable from reality as we know it, will arrive long before anyone sets foot on Zeta Reticuli Prime. That’s way out in the future, if possible at all.
Gyrus: In your writings, you’ve really aligned yourself with Huxley rather than Leary in the psychedelic propaganda argument. I was interested in why you worked with such an overground band like The Shamen. I know you appeared with them at the Birmingham NEC. How does that stand with your statements…
Terence: …I think when I worked with The Shamen, they weren’t so above ground. Time is a curious thing. We did all that stuff… four years ago? Something like that. So they were respectably underground at that point. Nothing ruins you for the underground like success. So when Boss Drum went double platinum, they were obviously ‘establishment’.
Gyrus: So you were on the cross-over…
Terence: That’s right. I worked with bands like Spiral Tribe and Zuvuya truly, authentically impossible to project into the commercial domain type bands. I’m much more comfortable with that. I’ve talked to Colin about this, and he agrees. It would have been wonderful to hit it big at 23. At 35 it becomes a pain in the ass, and you just have to manage the money and the image.
John: Are you still interested in working with popular cultural
things like music?
Terence: I’m interested, but I have no interest in giving advice to the young. I don’t want to become a grandfather figure. I would like to follow. I’d like to be accepted as the oldest and longest-toothed in the pack. But I have no illusions that my generation has great wisdom to impart. We impart a strong example; but that isn’t to say that those that went through it understand the kind of example they’ve become.
My hope is that the present youth culture will be a bit more resistant to co-option than the youth culture of the sixties, because those people just turned into the unbearable yuppies of the seventies and the eighties. The thing that keeps the youth culture vital in the UK is that there’s no social escape into respectability. A very small percentage may go on to nice houses in Hampstead, but the English social system has condemned most people to marginal positions vis-à-vis the official culture…
Gyrus: And they’ve made it worse with the Criminal Justice Act, they’ve just marginalized people and politicized loads of people like ravers… who may have just been into going out. And then when government say, "You’re not having free parties in the countryside", they think… "Let’s get ourselves together."
Terence: Well I think good art arises from a certain state of discomfiture. If you were to be totally embraced, what would be the point?
Gyrus: You’ve mentioned a few times the production of dimethyltryptamine in the human brain, and all the statements I’ve found in which you mentioned it have been up to ten years ago. I was wondering have there been any new developments in this, new research, especially in relation to dream activity?
Terence: Well the only research that’s been done since ten years ago is work done by Rick Strassman at the University of New Mexico. And it was very interesting. It certainly showed that DMT can be safely used. Although the fate of that research is very interesting. He was, he is, a Mahayana Buddhist, and at some point the Lamas came to him and asked him to stop that research, because they said it was "messing with peoples’ deaths." And, without a lot of debate, he folded. I respect Rick, but I would have asked, "Based on what published papers and in what journal of religious studies can we find this data?" (laughter) I think the most terrifying thing about DMT is it’s utter harmlessness. So there is no rational argument against it. And yet here it is, so much more powerful than any other psychedelic that it barely is in the same category.
Gyrus: You’ve made statements condemning the view that mathematical equations can bring us closer to a view of reality because they don’t come into our immediate experience of life. How does Timewave Zero fit into that? With it you’re trying to describe our felt experience of time, and yet it itself is a mathematical equation.
Terence: My gripe with mathematics is not that it’s remote from human experience, but that it uses a language that’s excruciatingly remote. You’ve referred to it as mathematical equations. What you see when you use Timewave Zero is not mathematical equations, but an easily understood picture like a stock market graph. The great revolution in mathematics, that’s going to make every one of us a mathematician, involves the fact that you no longer need numbers to do it. It all can be seen with computers. So I could cover this wall with equations and you wouldn’t know what I was talking about. But I can show you a ten second video clip of a certain object rotating in space—and you’ve got it. And that’s the same thing as all those equations. So what’s happening is mathematics is being taken out of the hands of an elite priesthood who speak a special secret language, and being put into the common language of visual appearances, by people like Ralph Abraham, and so forth and so on. This is very exciting stuff. So it isn’t mathematics per se that my argument is with, but the style of doing mathematics that was imposed upon it by the limitations of technology, pre-computer.
Gyrus: Most of the questions I came up with going through your work were all about paradox. There are so many paradoxes in your work. But it seemed to me that the biggest one was the actual practice of Timewave Zero, which is about setting a date for the end of time—at least in one of its interpretations. But you’ve stated that you see the run-up to 2012 as a time of ever increasing paradox. What are your thoughts on this?
Terence: Well, who was it? Oscar Wilde, or somebody said, "Consistency is the hobgoblin of small minds." Reality is inherently paradoxical. And the beginning of intellectual maturity is to be able to simultaneously hold two contradictory ideas in your mind at the same time. People ask me if I believe in the 2012 prediction. I don’t believe in anything. My anti-ideological stance makes it very important to believe nothing. I regard Timewave Zero as a fascinating model of a previously unmodelled system—which is human history. The fact that it seems to deliver interesting data… for instance, I predicted a very deep plunge into novelty this past summer. Just as it was at its deepest, the Martian meteorite chock full of fossils arrived—along with a lot of email demanding to know where was the miracle I had predicted. (laughter)
I like the word models. What we’re trying to do is build models. By saying the word ‘models’, we make it very clear that this is not ‘Truth’, and that there will be a better model, and we’ll swap the old for the new. So at the moment Timewave Zero is simply a better model of history than the idea that there is no model at all, which is what’s taught in the Academy. The definition of history, if you study history in the Academy, is: it’s a trendlessly fluctuating process. If true, it’s the only trendlessly fluctuating process ever to be observed in this universe. So obviously it’s not true, it’s just that we lack a model. So people say… like, Toynbee’s model was that ‘God is waiting’, somebody else had a ‘Great Man’ model, Marx believed it was all driven by class struggle, and Freud that it was all libido. Well, these are just opinions. Those aren’t theories, those are opinions. A theory has an ability to make predictions, and refine itself, so that’s what I offer with Timewave Zero.
It arises out of my relationship to the psychedelic experience. Because I believe that when we finally understand what a psychedelic trip is, we’ll realize that during the experience consciousness unfolds into a higher dimension. Not metaphorically, but literally a higher dimension. And that that’s how the shaman can tell where the game has gone, that’s how the shaman predicts the weather, that’s how the shaman knows more than the people he serves—because they’re all caught in a lower-dimensional slice of reality, and he’s looking down from a place that becomes accessible to him when cultural boundaries are dissolved. This is a key concept in my thinking: dissolution, and maintenance, of cultural boundaries. This is what psychedelics do. Whether you love ‘em or hate ‘em, what they do is dissolve boundaries. And this is of course closer to the way reality is. The boundary-riven reality is always the creation of a local language—English, French, Witoto—they create synthetic boundaries at the convenience of local syntax. What the psychedelic state shows you is that beyond that localism which is historically finite is the wisdom of the body, and the wisdom of the body is higher-dimensional.
And I mean these things very precisely. I’m not at war with the New Age, it’s the only category they have to put me in, but I really believe the New Age is a flight from authentic experience. That’s why the New Age is so uncomfortable with the psychedelic experience—they would rather have you drinking wheatgrass juice and staring at your navel. You could almost say of the New Age that they will accept anything as long as they can be assured of its lack of effectiveness. (laughter) That’s an assurance you don’t get with psychedelics. Even the critics of psychedelics grudgingly admit, "It works." But… you don’t work hard enough, or it doesn’t last long enough, or some other gripe. No gripe with its effectiveness.
Gyrus: You’ve said quite often that the world is made of language, and this seems to have caused quite a bit of confusion, myself included. Could you clarify what you mean by the word ‘world’ and what you mean by the word ‘language’ in that context?
Terence: Well, for example (the example I always use), the child lying in a crib with an open window—a pre-verbal or nearly pre-verbal child—and a hummingbird flies through the room. It’s a psychedelic miracle, it’s absolutely stunning. The boundaries of that experience are completely undefined. But then the mother or the nanny walks into the room and says, "Oh! It’s a bird, baby. Bird." The miracle immediately collapses down into a hard little tile, and by the time a person is six years old, reality has been entirely replaced by a mosaic of defined and very non-numinous meaning. And so people are then imprisoned in this language. And they will remain so imprisoned until the yawning grave, unless they are put in touch with the transhistorical wisdom of the body. And that means psychedelics. By the way, this idea that reality is made of language is actually the standard position in structural linguistics. This is not a radical position, this is dull-as-dog-shit orthodoxy for those people.
Gyrus: I was talking with a magician the other week and he was in complete agreement. You said once that the true secret of magick is that the world is made of words, and if you know what words the world is made of, you can do with it as you wish, and yeah, he was…
Terence: Yes, and energy follows attention. So, what we care about is what we take to be real. And there are all kinds of realities around us that we don’t even see. And then when these realities intrude into our vision, we become very upset. And often the urge is to suppress, because it presents itself as somehow threatening. This is why, in my opinion, psychedelics, though they do very little social harm, and don’t promote criminal syndicalism, we don’t have people overdosing in doorways, and so forth and so on; nevertheless, they are at the top of the agenda for suppression. Because, whether you’re a fascist state, and industrial democracy, a monarchy or whatever, the one thing you’re not interested in is having people question first premises. And psychedelics will force you back to do that. All social systems are to some degree con-games, because they’re always inconvenient for individuals, and they’re always extremely convenient for institutions. Psychedelics are hideously unfriendly to all forms of institutional thinking, and tremendously supportive of what I call the felt presence of immediate experience. That’s what ideology, and propaganda, and government, social programming, they all make war on the felt presence of immediate experience, and try to get you to deny the obvious wisdom of the body—and replace it with Christianity, Islam, the work ethic, whatever they’re pedalling at the moment.
John: Is that one of the reasons you backed off from an academic approach to all this?
Terence: Oh, I could never fit myself into an organization like that. I live in Hawaii, I’m virtually a hermit, I organize my own speaking, I say what I want. My fortunes ebb and flow with forces mysterious even to me. I can’t imagine committing myself to any kind of institutional structure. It’s tremendously disempowering. I mean, there’s nothing more contradictory than a radical in an organization. That’s why—let’s whisper it low—the ICA is an entire contradiction. The very idea of institutionalizing the avant-garde means that you don’t understand what the avant-garde is.
Gyrus: I’m interested your theories about the Stropharia cubensis mushroom evolving extra-terrestrially. Is this entirely due to information imparted in the trance that it induces? I was curious because there’s so many other species of mushroom, and other plants, that access these same dimensions, why is Stropharia cubensis this ‘special case’?
Terence: Well, it’s a complicated argument. There are a number of things you could say about Stropharia cubensis. First of all, an organism that wastes energy is slated for extinction. Thousands of mushrooms exist on this planet that don’t make psilocybin. Stropharia cubensis channels approximately fifteen percent of its metabolic energy into making psilocybin. Why, if mushroom existence doesn’t require that for any important purpose? It begins to look to me as though the mushroom may be a kind of technological artefact.
The other thing to notice is that, and this is true of all fungi, they’re what is known as primary decomposers. They exist only on dead matter. That’s the only karmaless place in the food chain. Vegetarianism compared to that is an orgy of mass slaughter. I guess I have a slight Buddhist bias here. But it seems to me that we’ve only known about DNA since about 1950, and we’re already talking about completely redesigning ourselves based on reprogramming the human genome. So it may be that this is a stage that any intelligent being, species, organism, anywhere in the universe passes through, a phase where it takes control of its own design process. And Stropharia cubensis looks to me like it’s been designed for immortality, information storage, low-speed space flight, an ability to adapt to an incredible variety of environments. So I’m willing to at least entertain the possibility, based on the fact that it talks to you and fills you with alien information, that it may in fact be an artefact of extra-terrestrial origin.
This is how real aliens would do it. They don’t arrive in the middle of the night with an interest in your asshole like the stories we’re given, that’s preposterous. Still less do they have an interest in the electrical grid, or the Gross National Product, or any of that. The problem with an extraterrestrial is to know when you’re looking at one. I once visited the world’s largest radio telescope in Araceibo, Puerto Rico, and they search for extra-terrestrial life with this thing. It’s so large a telescope it’s basically a dish suspended in round valley. And underneath the dish there’s pasture land, and white cattle, and Stropharia cubensis… It’s like this amazing image of this instrument studying the centre of NGC-3622, and yet a hundred feet from the main control booth is probably what they’re looking for. (laughter)
Gyrus: This is probably a peripheral question, but a lot of your descriptive, poetic language that you’ve used to describe the psychedelic experience has very industrial connotations. There’s been a lot of digital metaphors about the DMT trance, but you use… "machine elves", and "the green vegetable engine of nature"…
Terence: …That’s a steal from Dylan Thomas…
Gyrus: …Right—so that’s where it comes from?
Terence: "The greeny engine that drives the flower." Yeah. So what about that?
Gyrus: It’s interesting that this very thing that you seem to be railing against a lot of the time… well, not railing against, but putting a lot of environmental destruction down to the industrial revolution—and these adjectives are seeping into your description of this state…
Terence: Well, I don’t think the problem is with machines per se, I think it’s that we’re in a very early and primitive stage with machines. Nanotechnology holds out the possibility of building as nature builds, atom by atom. I think that the machines that we possess today are to the machines of the future what the chipped flint of the palaeolithic is to our machines. The key concept is prosthesis—in other words, the extension of human understanding and feeling by mechanical means. That’s tremendously exciting to me. I mean, given the human body, that’s hardware enough to integrate into a group of seventy hunting-gathering nomads. But a city like London—you need the tube system, you need the black cabs, you need radio and all of it, and these things are all prosthesis. And if we’re really talking about going to the next level, a global collectivity, a global telepathic state of mind, this can only be done at this stage by prosthesis. At some point, perhaps, one could reprogram human beings to be able to talk to each other on the other side of the planet. On the other hand, we see no animals who do that. There simply may be some things that lie beyond the capacity of mere unassisted flesh to achieve. But assisted flesh, flesh in marriage to prosthesis, can do anything. I think the whole curious fascination with piercing, and the mechanization of human body parts, and so forth and so on, that informs art at the moment is actually art performing the function it’s always performed—of anticipating where we’re headed.
Gyrus: As far as that concept of prosthesis goes, you’ve talked about machines and cultural artefacts as an extension of humanity, and you condemn laboratory-manufactured psychedelics to a large extent. Why would they not fall into the…
Terence: Well, I don’t condemn them out of some kind of purist "Plants are good, chemicals are bad"… No, I condemn them for very practical reasons. First of all, a white powder drug. You have no idea what it is. You can be fairly sure it was manufactured in an atmosphere of criminal syndicalism where the major goal was to make money. That’s not a very reassuring statement of drug purity and chemical attention to detail. And the other thing is, the vegetable psychedelics, we have our human data—five thousand years of mushroom use in Mexico, and so forth and so on. With a new drug, since it’s illegal to do research on it, we have no human data. And sometimes it takes a generation or two to see what the consequences of exposure to a compound are. So I don’t have an absolutist position against laboratory drugs, it’s simply that if we’re trying to get to a certain place—which is the dissolution of the ego, and the entry into psychedelic space—at this stage, the vegetable psychedelics are just simply more effective, better track record… they work.
Gyrus: So your argument is bound by the context of human society now?
Terence: Sure. If someone can produce a drug that meets all these requirements… And DMT occurs in nature, but when actually smoked, it’s usually coming out of a laboratory.
Gyrus: You’ve said that you don’t consider yourself a shaman just because shamans cure and you don’t cure anyone. Also you write a lot about the re-emergence of the shamanic institution. What do you think of its re-emergence in the modern world—how can it’s integrity be preserved, if at all, and how must it evolve?
Terence: The music. And the trance-dance drug-taking situation is the establishment of a ritual space outside the conventions of ordinary society, that is the new shamanism. And that’s again what makes it so suspect in the eyes of the establishment. They sense that this is something they can’t get a handle on and control, or that it takes them some time to get a handle on—they have to figure out how to co-opt each generation in a new way. My generation was co-opted in a very crude way, with money. Your generation… The Establishment’s not interested in that, they’d rather keep the money for themselves. I’m hoping that the new trance-dance culture has enough integrity to resist being folded into commercialism and ordinary mass cultural entertainment. But we shall see.
Gyrus: Could you outline the influence of Teilhard de Chardin on your work?
Terence: Yes. Essentially, he’s me without drugs or immediacy. (laughter) My rap would be much more palatable if I said it was all gonna happen fifty thousand years in the future, a million years in the future… The only difference between me and a lot of apocalyptarian thinkers is that I see this curve of increasing novelty and approach toward the transcendental as happening at a much faster rate. But I base my estimate of its acceleration by looking at how fast it’s accelerated in the past. I don’t see how anyone can speak in rational terms of a thousand years in the future, or five hundred years in the future. The twentieth century is ten times weirder than the nineteenth, and the twenty-first will be a thousand times weirder than the twentieth. Well then how can anyone extrapolate any institution or idea or style that far into the future?
It’s perfectly clear that we sought transcendence from the very first moment of consciousness. It takes about fifty thousand years to go from the "Gee, wouldn’t it be nice?" to the "My God, it now stands at the door…," and it now stands at the door. We’ve been planning and plotting this since the Pyramids and Stonehenge—it’s all been about this, apparently, moving ourselves, positioning ourselves for an evolutionary leap off the planet. Nature is not interested in sustainability. Ninety-five percent of all life that ever existed on this planet is now extinct.
John: I’ve got one last question. You said that you don’t see yourself as a shaman, and I guess you don’t see yourself as a guru either—so what do you see yourself as?
Terence: A troublemaker. A messenger, and somewhat of a troublemaker. Gurus… the mushroom said to me once, it said, "For one human being to seek enlightenment from another is like one grain of sand on a beach to seek enlightenment from another." The point being, the holiest, highest person you’ve ever met, Dalai Lama, Shree Bhagwan, you pick your guy, is no different from you. It’s an illusion that anybody is smarter than you are. People love to give away their power, and follow Christ, or Hitler, or Shree Bhagwan… They don’t understand that no one is smarter than you, no one understands the situation better than you, and no one is in a position to act for you more clearly than you are yourself. But people endlessly give away this opportunity, and subvert their identity to ideology. It’s the most perverse thing about human beings.
Gyrus: Where do you think this comes from?
Terence: Well, I had a professor once who said if you think of human beings as angels, it’s a shit of a scene. If you think of people as apes—it’s the most astonishing accomplishment you’ve ever laid eyes on. (laughter) And this is where we are, with one foot in a carnivorous, cannibalistic ape, and the other reaching out for deity.
You talk about a coincidentia oppositorum, a union of opposites, a living contradiction—human beings are that. Every one of us individually and then the entire enterprise as a collectivity. We’re in the process of changing—from an animal, into a god. It takes thirty thousand years. That’s a very uncomfortable moment. But in the life of a species, it’s the blink of an eye. We just happen to, because we live seventy years, it takes what? Five hundred generations to stumble through that zone of uncertainty that we call human history. Now, I think we’re close to the jackpot. I can feel the heat of the thing. And a lot of people fear it, because they cling to the old order. But there’s no room for clinging at this point. I mean, hang on, do not attempt to stand up, do not attempt to leave the carriage, we’re going over the top! (laughter) Scream if you must, but stay seated please!